The ties that bind? Niche topics in crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage asks the public to help with meaningful tasks that contribute to a shared, significant goal or research interest related to cultural heritage collections or knowledge. As a voluntary activity, undertaking the tasks and/or goals a project offers should be inherently rewarding for participants. Typical crowdsourcing tasks in cultural heritage include transcribing handwritten documents, correcting automatically-transcribed text, classifying images or helping with collections research. Participants may be motivated by their interest in the project or collection topic, their enjoyment of the tasks or materials offered, or an altruistic desire to support the mission of an organisation.

Many successful cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects are based around a particular locality, topic, research community or type of source material, suggesting that participants may be drawn to 'niche' projects. Under the right conditions, cultural heritage crowdsourcing can provide an opportunity for deeper engagement with collections, and in some cases, could be considered a form participatory public history. Communities of participants may form around projects, just as they do when people with a common interest meet through traditional volunteer projects within museums. As organisations built around topic-specific collections and information, theme museums are well-placed to provide niche projects and support engaged participant communities.

This presentation will explore some reasons why theme museums might have an advantage over unthemed history museums in recruiting and retaining participants. It will draw out lessons from niche crowdsourcing projects, audience research on specialist museums, and special interest projects from community (i.e. non-academic) history to show how theme museums can work with new and existing audiences.